Monday, September 18, 2006
Lady of the Lake
The summer I was thirteen years old I spent an awful lot of time at Lime Lake. Lime Lake wasn't anything special. It had more seaweed than charm. It was muddy and murky and any time I got in it I had the strange feeling like I was maybe ten seconds from being sucked under by a giant turtle or some other sea monster.
But I loved it anyway. I loved it because I was there with the girl who was my best friend at the time. Let's call her Tammy.
Tammy's grandparents owned a cottage that sat right on the lake. It had a big porch, a dock, and a boathouse. They had a big boat for tubing and skiing. They had a paddle boat that Tammy and I used to navigate the shoreline of Lime Lake, trolling for boys our age. We usually found more geese than boys.
But that summer it didn't matter that we couldn't find boys our age. What mattered was that this was it: it was one of those defining summers, one of those defining times in my life, and I knew it. I could feel it. Something was changing. We were on our summer between eighth and ninth grade. Come September, we were going to be in high school.
I had a big girl-crush on Tammy. Not in a romantic way, of course, because I was too busy harboring a giant crush on racecar drivers whose names weren't names but initials instead--one in particular who, it must be noted, actually ended up marrying Tammy many years later. But I worshipped Tammy. I wanted to be her. She had the cool family: the father who was silent but fun, the mother who drank all the time, the pesky little sister I secretly coveted. They had sectional sofas and a bar in their living room. We spent an awful lot of time mixing and matching liquor with mixers behind that bar, and I drank more than my fair share of Pepsi-Vodkas.
Tammy was popular with boys. She had a new boyfriend every week. Bobby. Eric. Chris. Don. She sang songs about them. We spent long hours in her basement bedroom (with checkered flag border) trying to analyze and understand them. And that summer we spent a lot of time at the lake trying to analyze and understand them. One in particular, a boy she would end up leaving for his best friend. I was in love with the boy she was about to jilt, but I didn't know it then. Actually, no. It was more complicated than that. I looked at them together--they never stopped making out--and I felt a dark tug in my middle, like I knew that's what I wanted but was light years from getting. Maybe this made me think I loved the boy she would eventually jilt. Maybe it was more that I was in love with the way she was and I was wishing I could be like that--so pretty-haired and outward and confident and fun that everyone wanted to be with me all the time.
Whatever it was, we still analyzed, and I was blissfully unaware of how it would all fall apart in the next three months. We sat with our legs in the water and we shucked corn. We rode tubes behind her grandfather's boat. We always said yes when her grandmother dished up second helpings. We sat out on the dock until late, late, late, and we ate Rice Krispie bars and talked about how it was going to be when we got to high school. She said we had some friends that we were probably going to have to stop being friends with. She named them. She said, "They're not mature enough for us. They don't understand."
And I nodded, but really I was thinking about that list of names and how much I loved those girls and how I thought Tammy was wrong--those girls were mature enough for us. And if she didn't think so, maybe that meant I wasn't mature enough for Tammy either.
I can still remember the way that night felt. I can remember each twink of light across the lake. I can remember the leaden feeling of four Krispie bars in my stomach. I can remember how close we were sitting and how I was thinking that this was exactly what friendship and life was about--these moments, these quiet moments sitting and staring off into the dark, which was more than just blackness. It was the future. I was peering into it and watching things take shape in the ink of night. I was seeing what our high school selves and lives would be like.
And when we went to bed that night, sleeping together in the giant king bed in the lower bedroom, I could hear the lake outside. It was lapping against the dock and boathouse. It was telling me things. It was saying, Enjoy this now. Take it all in. This isn't going to last.
It didn't. When we went into high school, something snapped between us. Tammy and I were suddenly at vastly different places. She was cheating on her boyfriend--the boy I realized I "loved," the boy I had expressed interest in first, the boy she flirted with and won right before my eyes. And, at the time, I thought that because Tammy was Tammy there was nothing wrong with that. She was also breaking up with the boy. And the boy was calling me, the best friend. He begged me to talk to her. I tried. She got angry. She got new friends. She spread rumors. One of her senior friends told me she was going to kick the shit out of me.
I, however, got the boy. It's no secret that my function in the romantic world is Runner Up. I'm always second place. That girl guys would call too good a friend to date. Or one they might date if So-and-So wasn't available and far more advanced. And it's by that default that I got the boy. He was trying to get back at Tammy, and I was trying to prove that I was better than Tammy, who I'd been wanting to be for so many years. We played Boyfriend-Girlfriend for a little bit, but he'd moved to a new school district and I was thirteen years old and unkissed. When we did get to see each other, this boy expected kissing. I was terrified. I didn't know how to do it. When he tried to kiss me for the first time as I shopped for a belly chain in Claire's, I backed away. I dodged him. I hid behind a rack of earrings. I pretended to be coy.
That's how it went for a few months. He told me he loved me and I said it back, even though I felt like such a faker the first time it came out of my mouth. You can say a lot of things about the girl I was back then, but I was smart enough to know when I said I love you, too I was lying. I didn't love him. I wasn't even close. But I was going to bed every night and crying about Tammy. That was a love I was interested in.
Eventually we broke up. It was the most beautiful, amicable breakup in the history of romance. He was so sweet about it. I was indifferent. "You're such a great girl," he told me as we got ready to get off the phone. "Give me a call someday." I lied and said I would, but I knew that would be the last time I heard from him.
Tammy and I never came back around the whole way about each other. Too much time had passed, too many things had been said. We didn't speak to each other until the summer after I went off to college. It was at the racetrack. We ran into each other in the pits, where cars fresh from the track creaked back to their pit stall to get loaded into trailers. She came up to me and hugged me. She said she missed me and that we were adults now. She said we should put all that stupid high school stuff behind us. I wanted to tell her that I cried for a year straight after she and I stopped being friends, and that losing her was worse than losing any boy. But I didn't tell her those things. I couldn't find the words to accurately explain what she used to mean to me and how much that summer on the lake defined me and taught me about life. She wouldn't have understood. I'm still working on it myself.
Yesterday all this stuff came back to me, but not for any reason you'd assume. I didn't see Tammy. It was much simpler than that. It was because I was sitting on the edge of a lake at sundown. I was staring off at lights just starting to blink on against the red dusk sky. This lake wasn't even Lime Lake. It was Silver Lake, a place where my father's girlfriend and her family own a cottage and boats and a dock. But just being there took me back. And when my one of the girlfriend's family members offered to take us out on the boat for a sunset drive around the lake, I couldn't help but thinking about Tammy as I eased down onto the cracked vinyl seats. I let the motor hum and the boat cut a path against the calm water, and I closed my eyes and smelled the whole greening wetness of the lake. And there we were: me and Tammy, towels cinched around our waist, sitting on the dock and talking about the boy she loved, the boy I would pretend to love, the boy that would eventually tear us apart.
When I opened my eyes it was to the sunset on Silver, not Lime, Lake, and I was twenty-five, not thirteen. I took a deep breath and gave myself two minutes where I could wish beyond anything to be back in that summer and on that lake with my then-best friend, but when those two minutes were over I let out the breath I'd been holding and I thought about how different things were now and I wondered how I'd ever managed to get here from there.